In an effort to further articulate how the New Testament authors use the OT, I'll be highlighting a number of examples from different New Testament authors. The format I'm using is a comparative chart followed by commentary. In the far left column I've placed my translation of the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT). In the middle column I've placed the Septuagint. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the OT abbreviated by the Latin numerals for "seventy" (LXX) based on a legend about the seventy translators who produced it. It is widely recognized the LXX was the Bible of the early Church and my comparisons will show the NT authors often follow the LXX, though in many cases they seem aware of the MT. There are lots of questions surrounding the textual issues of how the NT uses the OT, but my goal is primarily interpretive. In the far right column I've placed my translation of the NT text. I include the quotation formulas (i.e. "to fulfill what was said" or "as it is written") because I think they are often part of how the NT writers want to use the OT text.
After the comparative chart I've placed commentary. The commentary breaks down into three parts. In part one I discuss the textual issues. Is the NT writer following the LXX or the MT? How closely? What changes are evident? What might these changes signify? I'll admittedly spend less time on these issues than they deserve, but only because they've been rehearsed by those more capable than me in numerous journal articles commentaries and in the very helpful tool‒ Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. In part two, I'll do a brief overview of the OT passage in its original context. More could be said here as well, but the goal is to get a picture of the main point of the passage not capture every interpretive nuance. In part three, I'll look at what the NT author is doing with the passage. I'll answer what context the NT author is placing the OT passage in and then try to answer what the NT writer seems to be "doing."
My goal is to articulate what a NT writer, in this case Matthew, thought he was doing when he quoted the OT. A question I plan to pursue later his how well his audience would have picked up on his interpretive intentions and how much it matters, but I don't have time for that here. To dive right in I've compared Matthew's use of Isaiah 7.14 in Matthew 2:23 which upon even a surface comparative reading is quite problematic for those who suggest the NT writers are doing historical-grammatical exegesis (i.e. Walter Kaiser Jr.).
Isaiah 7.14; 8.8, 10
[7.14] Therefore, the lord himself will give to you a sign‒
young woman is pregnant and
is giving birth
to a son,
and you will call his name Immanuel.
is with us."
[7.14] On account of this the Lord himself will give to you a sign‒ Behold, the virgin will be pregnant and she will bear a son, and you will call his name Immanuel.
"God is with us."
"Because the Lord God is with us."
| So this all happened in order that the word by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled saying,|
"Behold the virgin will be pregnant and she will bear a son, and you will call his name Immanuel,
"God with us."
Textual Issues:Much ink has been spilled over this verse. Textually, there are only a couple of features of significant debate. Matthew follows the Septuagint exactly adding only an interpretive gloss on the name Immanuel, which though often overlooked but indicated in my chart, is clearly drawn from later in Isaiah's prophecy (8.8, 10). Both the LXX and Matthew have two interesting differences from the MT. The first, and most significant, is the translation "virgin" parthenos for "young woman" 'alemâ. There is a lot of debate about this difference since "young woman" does not necessarily imply virginity but simply a woman of marriageable age. The typical Hebrew word for "virgin" is betūlâ. The question is why did the LXX translators use parthenos rather than the Greek word neanis appearing elsewhere as the LXX for the Hebrew 'alemâ (Exod 2.8; Ps 67.26; Song 1.3; 6.8)? There is nothing in the context of Isaiah that would seem to imply this woman is a virgin, but the LXX translators use parthenos. It should be pointed out that in Genesis 24.43 parthenos translates 'alemâ and contextually the woman, Rebekah, was in fact a virgin. It is difficult to draw much in the way of a conclusion because of the scarcity of the word 'alemâ in the OT. Suffice it to say Isaiah did not mean virgin but the LXX translators may have meant "virgin."
The second issue is the aspect of the verb for the birth. The MT text has a Qal participle translated "is giving birth" while the LXX and NT have the future indicative "will give birth." The Hebrew text emphasizes the process is happening where as the Greek places the birth in the future. This is not a drastic difference, but it does seem to imply that the Hebrew is indicating a more immediate fulfillment of Isaiah's words.
Context in Isaiah:Ahaz, the king of Judah, was terrified to learn that Syria and Israel were mounting an attack against Judah (Isa 7.1‒2). In response, Isaiah was sent to reassure Ahaz to trust that God would not allow these renegade kingdoms to overtake Judah (Isa 7.4‒9). To reassure Ahaz Isaiah said, "Ask for a sign of the Lord your God, let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven" (Isa 7.10). Unfortunately, Ahaz out of fear but in the guise of piety refuses to ask for a sign (cf. Num 14.22; Deut 6.16). In a response of judgment, Ahaz is promised the child "Immanuel" from a young girl (Isa 7.14-17). Before the child is old enough to discern right and wrong, Syria and Israel will be deserted by the power of Assyria. The child, then, would seem to be none other than Maher-shala-hash-baz‒ Isaiah's unborn son (Isa 8.1-3). Or it is possible this is a separate child to be named Immanuel and will serve the same symbolic purpose as the later born child. Either way, this "Immanuel" child is intended to serve as a sign of God's trustworthy presence as well as judgment upon Ahaz who is not established in faith, and thus will not be established at all (7.9).
Fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy is tricky. On the one hand, the sign must surely have had a referent that would have made sense as a sign to Ahaz (Isa 7.14, 17ff.; 8.8; 9.1). Yet, it is clear that the gathering of Israel and unprecedented importance is attached to the promised child (Isa 9.1-7; 10.20-23; 11.1-16). John Walton observes three problems with arguing that Immanuel is Maher-shalal-hash-baz or even a separate child to serve as a sign to Ahaz. First, Isaiah prompts Ahaz to ask for a remarkable sign, but there is nothing particularly unusual about the birth of a child. Second, the use of the rare Hebrew word "young woman" (occurs only 7x in the OT: Gen 24.43; Exod 2.8; Ps 68.25; Prov 30.19; Song 1.3; 6.8; Isa 7.14), complicated by the LXX translation "virgin" parthenos, suggests that this might be more remarkable than Shear-Jashub or Maher-shalal-hash-baz (7.3; 8.3). Third, the choice of the name Immanuel is lofty and does not seem to fit the specific historical situation like Isaiah's other sons' names. These complications are not convincing to suggest that the child is not Maher-shala-hash-baz, the position that Walton ends up taking.
The judgment theme of the "Immanuel" prophecy is too often overlooked. The overarching context of Isaiah 1‒6 concerns God's judgment on a wayward people. Isaiah 6 especially focuses on Isaiah's role as the prophet who will be ignored and thus proclaim judgment. The phrase "God with us" or its variations can imply protection (Ps 46.7, 11), salvation (Ps 48.8, 12), divine support (2 Sam 7.3), success in battle (2 Chron 13.12; 32.8; Judg 6.13-14), God's military support in taking possession of the land (Num 14.9; 32.32) or Yahweh's presence as a result of repentance and obedience (Amos 5.14; Zeph 3.15). It is Yahweh's presence that sets Israel apart as God's people (Exod 33.16; 1 Kgs 8.57). Still, God's presence does not always serve these positive functions and contextually Isaiah 7:14 would seem to be very antithesis to this support because Ahaz has been neither repentant nor obedient.
There are other indicators that God being with Israel is not just roses and success. The shift from "your God" (Isa 7.10) to "my God" (Isa 7.13) points to an increased distance not a comforting divine presence. There is also a consistent picture in the OT of God's presence among his people meaning judgment. Consider just a few examples: exodus judgment in the wilderness (Num 14, 16), the ark and judgment for unfaithfulness (1 Sam 4.3-5, 10-11, 18, 20-22; cf. Mal 3.11), Isaiah's own experience in the temple implies judgment is a sign of God's presence not his absence (Isa 6.1, 9-12; cf. Mal 3.1-5; 4.1-6). Yahweh's exaltation is a repeated theme in Isa 1‒6 but his exaltation is over proud and disobedient Judah (Isa 2.9-14, 17; 5.11-17; cf. 1.21-26, 28, 31; 3.12-15; 6.1; 12.4). Yahweh's presence as judgment fits with the covenant language of Isaiah, echoing the OT, that highlight's Israel's failure. Violation of the covenant, however, implies that Israel has a unique covenant relationship with Yahweh (cf. Jer 25.29; Ezek 9.6; Amos 3.2). This same theme is carried over into the NT as well (1 Pet 4.17; cf. James 3.1). God being "with Israel" means not only that he loves and protects her but also that she falls under God's judgment first and foremost.
In its original context, Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy intended to be fulfilled in Isaiah's day with drastic implications for God's people. This child would serve as a symbol of both God's miraculous salvation and his judgment on those who fail to give ear to his words. In spite of Ahaz's failures God would bring salvation from the coalition rising against Judah, but Israel still stood under God's judgment for consistently failing to trust him.
Context in Matthew:Before Matthew's gospel even gets started it looks as though the purposes of God might be thwarted. Mary, the pregnant virgin, faces shame of divorce from her soon-to-be husband (Mt 1.18‒19). Yet God intervenes through an angel to instruct Joseph to take Mary as his wife because the child is "from the Holy Spirit" (1.20). The angel also instructs Joseph that the child will be named "Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (1.21). Matthew then adds an interpretive gloss from scripture to indicate that the whole ordeal‒ Mary's Immaculate Conception, Joseph's decision for divorce, the visit from the angel and the name Jesus‒is a fulfillment of scripture.
This interpretive gloss is the first of his twelve fulfillment formulas (Mt 1.22-23; cf. 2.15, 17, 23; 4.14-16; 8.17; 12.17-21; 13.35; 21.4; 26.54, 56; 27.9). Ten of these formulas are identified with specific OT texts by Matthew (Mt 1.22-23; 2.15, 17, 23; 4.14-16; 8.17; 12.17-21; 13.35; 21.4; 27.9). Here Matthew simply describes this OT text as "the word of the Lord through the prophet," but Matthew has no problem identifying the specific prophet he is quoting especially when it comes to Isaiah (Mt 4.14-16; 8.17; 12.17-21; cf. 3.3; textual variant in 13.35 as well). Further significance is attached to this formula by making this a word "from God" added to the fulfillment formula only twice (Mt 1.22, 2.15). Both fulfillments summarize angelic appearances in Joseph's dreams. This word from God, via divine messenger (an angel of the Lord) and ancient prophet makes the text especially important. Furthermore, the fact that this quotation is the first of the fulfillment texts suggests that it is programmatic for Matthew.
It is somewhat odd, and not often pointed out, that "Immanuel" is a name, but Jesus has already been given a name. "Jesus" is connected with the Hebrew word yāša meaning "to save" which apparently requires no explanation (cf. Philo Names 121‒122; Note that in Isaiah salvation is connected with the end of exile: Isa 40.2; 43.25; 59.2). "Immanuel," in contrast, requires interpretation‒ "God with us" (1.23b). This interpretation comes not from Isaiah 7:14, but Isaiah 8.8 and 10. Matthew, then, seems to be aware of the broader context of Isaiah 7‒9 and is putting this passage next to the birth narrative to make a theological comparison that will serve a programmatic function in his gospel. Jesus will not only save people from their sins but will serve as a sign of God's judging presence. Rejecting him is tantamount to rejecting Yahweh, but following him brings salvation.
This passage cannot adequately be described as a prophetic fulfillment. Isaiah never intended this verse to refer to the Messiah. No one before Matthew ever connected this text with the Messiah. Matthew is himself not trying to "prove" the virgin birth from scripture because such an argument would have been completely unconvincing to anyone who actually read Isaiah. Instead, Matthew is describing Jesus' identity by using an OT text for the birth of a child who would be a sign of both salvation and judgment.